The research by University of Otago researchers Prof George Dias and Prof Margreet Vissers, in collaboration with Massey University School of Sport, Exercise and Nutrition Prof David Rowlands, was conducted as part of a Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment’s Smart Ideas grant.
Building upon research and trials conducted by Prof Dias, Prof Rowlands hypothesised that the unique amino acid composition of keratin could be used to increase insulin sensitivity in people with diabetes.
"It was an out-there idea, but we wanted to trial edible keratin protein derived from sheep’s wool which is particularly rich in cysteine, glycine and arginine, which are important for insulin function," Prof Rowlands said.
Before the process begins, the wool is washed several times before undergoing a novel method using what is essentially a high-pressure microwave oven to break down the sulphur double bonds that tightly bind the keratin together.
This unwinds the protein and allows it to be reduced into smaller fragments and made digestible.
To investigate the effects of the edible keratin protein, 35 participants with type-2 diabetes engaged in a 14-week trial.
They consumed 17g of keratin, blended with whey protein daily, via muffins and capsules, and took part in a standardised exercise programme.
Prof Rowlands said the combination of keratin supplementation and exercise across the 14-week period led to a substantial improvement in glucose delivery from the bloodstream into muscle tissues.
While there was more work to come before the keratin protein could become a pantry staple, Prof Rowlands said it could make a difference in the health of people with type-2 diabetes.
"With the keratin protein encouraging enhanced insulin sensitivity, it could improve blood sugar control, reducing the risk of hyperglycaemia, as well as improving energy regulation and production, and potentially a reduced medication dependency for a better quality of life.
"As it currently stands, the wool-derived keratin protein is still a prototype food product, so we’re trying to improve it.
"We’re not quite there yet, but if we can continue driving it forward, there’s good potential."